Why Do I Get Distracted Easily?

By Amalia Sirica, LCSW

If you ever find it hard to get tasks done because your thoughts keep going elsewhere, you aren’t alone. One study found that our minds wander 47% of the time and that people tend to feel less happy when it occurs — even when thinking about pleasant topics.

There are mixed feelings on whether mind-wandering is a good or a bad thing, as some experts believe it helps promote creativity and innovation. Regardless, a wandering mind can be incredibly distracting, especially when you’re trying to maintain focus. If your wandering thoughts are costing you your happiness or productivity, it can help to understand why this phenomenon occurs and learn ways to reduce its impact.

At a Glance

  • Mind-wandering is common, and it tends to distract people and make them feel less happy.
  • Some scientists think mind-wandering promotes creativity and innovation, while others believe it is linked to symptoms of depression.
  • Practicing mindfulness is one strategy that can reduce mind-wandering and help you cope with negative thoughts more effectively.

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Wandering Mind

Why do our minds wander? Some believe it happens when we’re trying to complete tasks we find boring or difficult, and it can also occur when we’re anxious, worried or procrastinating. Some experts theorize that our minds wander when we perceive that our current task is not valuable — when the task isn’t valuable, our minds wander to find ones that are.

However, a recent study found that mind-wandering during tasks can actually be helpful, as it activates brain functions that are responsible for relaxation. By doing so, mind-wandering can help us maintain productivity or even solve problems we otherwise couldn’t if we stayed entirely focused. In other words, it gives our minds a break and helps us refresh.

Is Mind-Wandering Bad?

Scientists continue to debate whether mind-wandering is bad or good for us. Prior research determined that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind, but other explorations have found that it seems to be a natural cognitive process.

Further studies have agreed that mind-wandering is linked to low mood, noting that there’s a relationship between depressive symptoms and increased mind-wandering. In one study, researchers aimed to determine whether mind-wandering causes depressive symptoms or vice versa. The scientists found that sadness tended to come before mind-wandering, and mind-wandering did not cause mood issues on its own. Mood was only affected when the wandering thoughts were negative.

Although there may be a link between wandering thoughts and mood concerns, many still believe mind-wandering is beneficial overall. One expert argues that even though mind-wandering may seem purposeless, it is actually often focused on our goals. Other research supports this idea, demonstrating that wandering thoughts can help us solve previously encountered problems and promote more creative problem-solving.

A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind

In one study, researchers strongly presented the case that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. They explained that mind-wandering seems to be the brain’s default mode, and although it can help us with learning and reasoning, it also comes at an emotional cost.

The study’s primary findings include:

  • People’s minds wander often, no matter what they are doing.
  • People are less happy when their minds are wandering than when they are not. People do not feel happier when thinking about pleasant topics, but they feel much unhappier when thinking about neutral or unpleasant topics.
  • What people were thinking was a better predictor of their happiness than what they were actually doing.

How To Stop Your Mind From Wandering

Although there is still much disagreement over whether mind-wandering is good or bad, wandering thoughts can certainly be distracting. If you’ve found that mind-wandering is causing you problems or distress in your daily life, there are a few ways you can help reduce the negative effects.

Since some mind-wandering can be beneficial, finding a healthy balance is the best way forward. This might be done through mindfulness practices, which can reduce mind-wandering and help you detach from negative or distressing thoughts. Mindfulness can help you learn how to focus your attention on the tasks at hand, therefore reducing mind-wandering and potentially improving mood and productivity. In particular, integrative mindfulness training has been shown to help with attention, anxiety, depression, anger and fatigue. It also showed a significant decrease in stress-related cortisol.

If you’re able to avoid negative thoughts, a wandering mind can easily become a productive tool. This is why finding balance can be so helpful for us in our day-to-day tasks: it can free our minds up for healthy wandering that promotes creativity, problem-solving and relaxation.

Getting Help for a Wandering Mind

Mindfulness can go a long way toward reducing the negative effects of a wandering mind. If you or someone you love is struggling with distractions or wandering thoughts, mental wellness resources like Nobu can help. The free-to-use Nobu app offers a wide variety of tools that can help improve your mental health and promote mindfulness in all aspects of your life. If you’re experiencing mental health concerns, such as anxiety or depression, you can even connect with a licensed therapist for an additional fee.

If you’re looking to gain more focus on day-to-day tasks — or if you need treatment for certain mental health symptoms — our evidence-based services can help. Download the Nobu app today and see how it can help you live a happier, healthier life.

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Edited by – Jonathan Strum

Jonathan Strum graduated from the University of Nebraska Omaha with a Bachelor’s in Communication in 2017 and has been writing professionally ever since. He has written, edited and published content for health care professionals, educators, real estate agents, lawyers and high-level university faculty… Read more.

Amalia Sirica

Written by – Amalia Sirica, LCSW

Amalia Sirica is New York State Licensed Clinical Social Worker and a writer. She has spent the last ten years working with children, young adults and adults of all different backgrounds and experiences. She received her bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Duke University, and her master’s degree in Social Work from New York University… Read more.

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Medically Reviewed by – Dr. Angela Phillips

Angela is a licensed therapist and clinical researcher, and has worked in public, private, government, and not-for-profit organizations, across clinical and research-oriented roles. Angela’s clinical and research experience has included suicide prevention, cognitive behavioral… Read more.

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Yamaoka, Akina; Yukawa, Shintaro. “Mind wandering in creative problem-solving: Relationships with divergent thinking and mental health.” PLOS One, April 23, 2020. Accessed December 10, 2021. 

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